Through a Jewish lens
by David Lamble
The 33rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs July 25-Aug. 1 at the Castro, Aug. 2-8 at Berkeley's California Theatre, Aug. 2 at Oakland's Art Murmur, Aug. 3-8 at Palo Alto's Cinearts, Aug. 3-4 at SFJCC, Aug. 9-11 at Oakland's Grand Lake, Aug. 12 at Oakland's Piedmont, and Aug. 10-12 at the Smith Rafael Film Center. It features two outstanding queer features, along with impressive film spotlights and filmmaker appearances.
Out in the Dark Israeli director Michael Mayer dramatizes the stakes with an intimate melodrama about a young Jewish lawyer's affair with a Palestinian grad student. Well-connected attorney Roy thinks his political juice will shelter him and his lover Nimr, but things go seriously awry on both sides of the border. Director/co-writer Mayer appeared at the Frameline festival, where he described casting his charismatic leads Michael Aloni (Roy) and Nicholas Jacob (Nimr).
"Michael is a really big star in Israel, and I was reluctant to audition him because he was too pretty, too blonde, but my casting director said, 'You really should check him out.' I caught a movie of his, and he was outstanding. With Nicholas, his girlfriend at the time was auditioning to be his sister. She didn't get it, but as she was leaving she said, 'If you're still looking for a lead, I think my boyfriend would be terrific, he's never acted before.' When he appeared with Michael, the chemistry was phenomenal.
"The story came from a dinner conversation I had with a friend with an organization that supports gay Palestinians who are in Israeli illegally. I know about a 1994 report that indicated that Israeli intelligence was blackmailing Palestinian gays back then."
Mayer was asked why he didn't provide a more hopeful ending. "We shot in Israel and Palestine, but edited in LA. When we showed a rough cut, everyone there had the same reaction you did. 'Why so hopeless?' My producer at the time was showing the same cut to people in Israel, and they came out saying, 'Is that a heavy ending? Well, nobody dies.' So I thought, 'Leave it right there.' My co-writer stands a little to the right politically, I'm a little to the left. Not to be too pessimistic, but we're really not that hopeful about any sort of resolution in the near future." (Castro, 7/29; California, 8/2; Cinearts, 8/8)
Lies in the Closet. Photo: Courtesy SF Jewish Film Fest
Lies in the Closet Or is a young man so brilliantly duplicitous director Shirly Berkovitz must have dreamt him. Or, a 22-year-old, skinny, bushy-haired boy living with his parents, concocts an elaborate hoax: he brazenly fakes a letter of admission from Oxford, gets Dad to write a huge check for school, and mails it to a Bangkok hospital specializing in sex reassignment surgery. Or is ambivalent about his bait-and-switch life-change on the parents. "How can I say Mom and Dad if they don't really know me? I lived with them for 22 years, they're prejudiced."
Swathed in bandages, Or phones home describing Bangkok as if it were Oxford, eventually assuaging his guilt with a Thai beauty makeover.
"Can you make me pretty?"
"Sometimes, before you're pretty, you have to be ugly first."
A final Bangkok night belting out a tipsy transgender version of "My Way" precedes an awkward Tel Aviv airport meet with Mom, who is accepting (she had noticed the dresses hanging in the back of her son's closet). Personal truths must finally be faced. In an amazing climax off-camera, Dad freaks. "You'll give me a heart attack. Give me back my son!" (Castro, 7/28; California, 8/3)
Photo: Adam Gin
Red Flag Actor/writer/director Alex Karpovsky has buzz from his guest slots on HBO's Girls, as the bad boyfriend in Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture, and as the saintly wannabe lawyer/lover in Andrew Bujalski's Beeswax. The SFJFF's Spotlight on Karpovsky features this screening of his fifth film, in which he travels the South showing an eco doc, Woodpecker (his second), while having an awful but rather funny time with a friend and that buddy's angry girlfriend. By phone, he discussed his methods, influences, and how Red Flag originated.
"I had recently got out of a relationship which ended badly, so the last thing I wanted to do was be alone with my thoughts. I wanted to make a movie on the road so I could work with friends and come away with a movie I was happy with. So those motels are motels we actually stayed in, and all those Q&As were part of the actual tour.
"I had a 30-page outline with a short description for each scene. I would discuss the beats with the actors and allow them to hit them in their own words. This is kind of how Larry David shoots Curb Your Enthusiasm." (Castro, 7/27; Grand Lake, 8/11)
American Jerusalem: Jews and the Building of San Francisco "The city is growing rapidly, murders and robberies occur frequently, but who cares? Everyone has his Bowie knife and revolver, and that is protection enough!" – Adolph Sutro. Marc Shaffer docs the unique role the Jewish community played in the construction of modern San Francisco, when 19th-century Jews fled Germany. "Jews were present in San Francisco from the very beginning. The first high holy day services were held in 1849." A sleepy town in the late 1840s, San Francisco exploded when gold was discovered, the world rushed in, and as one expert notes, "Jews rushed in."
Shaffer examines the paradoxes that shaped Jewish life in the young city. Free for the first time from persecution, Jews were anxious that they never again become "the other." (Castro, 7/31; Cinearts, 8/3)
Hannah Arendt It's May 1960, and German-born scholar Hannah Arendt is receiving the news of the capture of Nazi Holocaust architect Adolph Eichmann, in Argentina by Israeli intelligence agents. The legendary director Margarethe von Trotta returns with Fassbinder regular Barbara Sukowa as the philosopher who coined the term "the banality of evil" while covering the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker. As editor Wallace Shawn suggests sending the famed scholar to cover the Jerusalem trial, a colleague sniffs, "Philosophers don't make deadlines!" (Castro, 7/28)
The Producers "If you've got it baby, flaunt it!" Proudly vulgar con man Max Bialystock is back, and with him some of the screen's most vulgar gags, performed by an over-the-top cast of theatrical Nazis, flaming transvestites, and a Greek chorus of rich and horny little old ladies. Mel Brooks' classic swindler's farce highlights the Festival's Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy series, with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprising their stage roles. (Grand Lake, 8/11)